An encyclopedic history of riding the waves.
Drawing as much from their professional specialties in science, technological, and environmental history as on their mutual love for surfing, Westwick (History/Univ. of Southern California) and Neushul (History/Univ. of Southern California, Santa Barbara) present a tidal wave of surfing history and analysis. Looking at more than a century’s worth of data from a mainly sociohistorical perspective, the authors present the compelling case that surfing offers a tantalizing stew of contradictions, at once an activity pairing “subversive social rebellion” with the “middle-class mainstream” and juxtaposing lifestyle with sport, “modern society” with the “natural world.” Today’s multibillion-dollar surfing industry traces its roots to the popular pastime of Hawaiian natives, who rode 100-pound redwood planks through the roiling Waikiki surf. While early-19th-century missionaries helped spawn surfing’s “cool” image by deeming it slightly immoral, the authors argue their greater effect on surfing stemmed not from their conservative views so much as the disease these Westerners brought with them, causing the Hawaiian population to drop from an estimated 800,000 to 40,000 in the 1890s. Despite that gross literal decline in those able to surf, the sport caught on in California, thanks in part to writers like Richard Henry Dana and Jack London, whose late-19th- and early-20th-century accounts of surfing helped bring it to the mainstream. Those for whom surfing represents the apotheosis of countercultural living may be shocked to learn that some of the most radical innovations in surfing technology came from the American aeronautical industry, which helped introduce polyurethane foam for boards, and the Navy, whose combination of neoprene with nylon in the early 1950s resulted in the modern wetsuit.
The authors leave no aspect of surfing unexplored—as rewarding for those addicted to pursuing the “stoke” as for others merely smitten by surfing’s idyllic island allure.